May 29, 2020 - Technology

Trump forces fateful choices on Twitter and Facebook

Illustration of President Trump's shadow being cast over the logos of Facebook and Twitter

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's war with Twitter is confronting social media platforms with a hard dilemma: whether to take fuller responsibility for what people say on their services, or to step back and assume a more quasi-governmental role.

The big picture: Facebook is trying to be more like a government committing to impartiality and protecting free speech and building mechanisms for arbitration. Twitter, pushed by Trump's inflammatory messages, is opting to more aggressively enforce conduct rules on its private property, like a mall owner enforcing rules inside the gates.

  • History lesson: If an online moderator lays down a rule, a user will deliberately test it: That pattern has dominated the evolution of Internet speech for four decades, ever since online forums first tried to rein in obstreperous participants.

Be smart: The escalating battle between President Trump and Twitter is now splaying this dynamic out on the stage of national politics, during a pandemic, at a moment of high tension over police violence. That's forcing Twitter and Facebook, which have long enjoyed the fruits of their ambiguous status as private companies with public roles, to make hard choices.

Why it matters: For better and worse, Twitter and Facebook have become versions of the town square: They're where we conduct public life. But they're also privately owned and operated platforms governed by the laws of business.

The U.S.'s cherished First Amendment aims to block the government from limiting what citizens can say.

  • It places no obligations on private individuals or companies.
  • But its principles have become a broader touchstone for American values.
  • While Twitter and Facebook don't have to apply the First Amendment to their platforms, they do have to obey laws governing crimes like child abuse and human trafficking.

Free speech has been a rallying cry for the internet ever since the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which sought to ban online pornography.

  • The only substantial part of the CDA still on the books is Section 230, which says that online service providers can't be held legally responsible for the speech contributed by their users.
  • That's the law that the president now wants to revoke because of what he claims is bias against conservatives.

Yes, but: Conservatives have long opposed limits on the freedom of private companies, and the notion that corporations are people with the same free speech rights as individuals sits at the heart of the right's legal doctrine.

  • It's the basis for the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for campaign spending by companies.

Trump is now forcing a different question: Whether we're happy with corporations assuming government-style First Amendment responsibilities to tolerate even offensive speech.

The bottom line: When the laws governing social media content were set in the '90s, the biggest fear in the minds of internet activists was a power-grabbing government telling people what they could and couldn't say online.

  • No one imagined a situation where a trolling president would cry "censorship" at a private company trying to enforce its rules.
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